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Food movies are notoriously hard to make

When I first interviewed Huma Qureshi four years ago, she was already a big star and, it was predicted, would rise even further.

What I did not realise then, was that despite her success in mainstream (well, glamorous) roles, she would consciously — as Meryl Streep in the West, perhaps — try and do different kinds of parts, never repeating even the broad contours of a performance.


This is hard to do in Bollywood, where roles for women are not as varied as they could be.


    I was certainly not expecting to see her transform into a dumpy Gujarati lady as she does in Tarla, the new Zee5 movie on Tarla Dalal, the most influential Indian cookbook writer of the 20th century.


   First of all, it is a daring career move. And secondly, Huma, who sees herself as an average upper-middle-class South Delhi type (“Which means I am like a Punjabi”, she jokes) pulls off the Gujarati persona so well that even I, a hyper-critical Gujarati, was gobsmacked.


   I asked her about the transformation, and she said she had a lot of help with the diction and accent. As for the deglamorisation, she made it a rule never to look at the monitor or to see the footage when she was filming: “As much as I try not to be vain, I know that there will always be some small part of me that would have been unhappy with the way I looked.”


   There is a third reason for my surprise. Huma comes from a celebrated family of restaurateurs, who run the respected Saleem chain of restaurants. She is not, what we Gujaratis would call, a dal-bhaat-rotli-shaak kind of girl. And yet here she was, pretending to enjoy all the vegetarian food that Tarla Dalal cooked.


   She says she was surprised herself by the things she had to say. “I had to try a vegetable biryani, to enjoy it and to say how delicious it was. I have been brought up to believe that biryani is always made with meat. Vegetable biryani? Not my sort of thing at all. When people compliment me on my performance, I always say that if I was convincing when I appeared to enjoy the vegetable biryani, then yes, it was a good performance”, she laughs.


   One of the dishes Tarla Dalal cooked was something called Batata Musallam, which, apparently, is not as horrendous as it sounds. When Huma’s father heard of it, he was shocked. But he was open-minded, tried it and now they even serve it at his Saleem restaurants. (So, it can’t really have been that bad; just incongruous sounding!)


   Not to belabour the Meryl Streep parallels, but it is worth remembering that Streep pulled off a similar coup when she played Julia Child in Nora Ephron’s Julie and Julia. The film is based on a book by Julie Powell, who managed to recreate every dish in Julia Child’s most famous cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Ephron’s movie was half about Powell (played by Amy Adams) and half about Julia Child and her husband (played by Streep and Stanley Tucci). The Child half was so good that I wished Ephron had just made a movie about Julia Child starring Streep and had not bothered with Powell’s book at all.


"All of us who write about food recognise that to go on and on about the “mouth feel” of a dish can sound ridiculous after a while."

   Food movies are notoriously hard to make. If you are a foodie (as Ephron was), you want to focus as much on the food as on the people. But this is difficult to do because we see so much high-quality food and cooking on reality TV anyway.


   When the directors of the recent The Menu, starring Ralph Fiennes, wanted their movie to capture what the cooking is like in a three-Michelin-star restaurant, they turned to David Gelb who created Netflix’s Chef’s Table to ask how to shoot the food. That’s one reason why the food and cooking scenes in The Menu look so good.


   The Menu is not a love-letter to fine dining. It begins by paying homage to all the clichés of the Michelin-star establishment: The remote location that you have to struggle to get to; the tables that are so hard to book; the celebrated chef who is a tyrant in the kitchen; the slavishly devoted diners who not only worship the chef but talk at interminable length about the dishes, dropping names and food references; and some of the people who eat at such restaurants only to show off.


   I thought it lost its way towards the end, but much of the film was entertaining and accurate. All of us who write about food recognise that to go on and on about the “mouth feel” of a dish can sound ridiculous after a while.


   That’s one reason why, for the most part, food movies distance themselves from fine dining. In Chef, the eponymous hero walks away from his fine-dining establishment and finds happiness making sandwiches on the road. In No Reservations, the food comes a distant second to the relationship between Aaron Eckhart and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Burnt, starring Bradley Cooper as a chef who is lost to drug addiction and then recovers to win three Michelin stars for his restaurant, is set in the restaurant world. It’s not really about food, but about its hero.


   On TV, chefs rarely make for good fiction. We all know Anthony Bourdain’s food shows but how many of us know that his book, Kitchen Confidential, was turned into a sitcom by Fox TV in 2005? The show, starring a young (and not yet famous) Bradley Cooper as Jack Bourdain had telecast only four episodes when Fox announced that it had been cancelled.


   I didn’t think it was bad. I may have been the show’s only devoted viewer because, after it was cancelled, I went out and bought the DVD so that I could watch the episodes that had been filmed but never telecast.


   Of late, the trend is changing. When The Bear was first streamed in the US, I thought it followed the pattern that had been set by Chef and other such entertainment. The premise was that a fine-dining chef returned to his family’s sandwich shop in a gritty Chicago neighbourhood.


   By the second season however, the show had discovered the world of high-end restaurants. The chef decided to open a fine-dining place, and his staff went off to do stages (internships) at top restaurants. The scenes set in a top (unnamed) Chicago restaurant accurately capture the highs and lows of this kind of dining. Also true to life (well, sort of) are the scenes set in a Copenhagen restaurant that is not named but is clearly meant to be Noma. The second season has done even better than the first and a third is on its way.


   The next step would be for Hindi cinema to turn its attention to food. Except for Tarla (which was made for streaming, not cinema) there has not been much about food and restaurants except for the Cheeni Kum kind of film in which Amitabh Bachchan played the world’s most unbelievable chef.


   Perhaps that will change now that Tarla has been so well received.




  • G Rajagopal 21 Jul 2023

    Enjoyed the article, Vir. But while you've named a few food themed Hollywood films, you've not mentioned the other, and imho even better, foodie film starring Huma Q: Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana!
    Well worth a watch, if you haven't already.

Posted On: 21 Jul 2023 03:00 PM
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